For weeks now there have been short election ads urging viewers to vote for a new party, Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party. The really old ones amongst us, that is, people older than me, will remember another UAP which flourished in the interwar years in part because of a Labor split. But there have been no ads from the majors. It hardly matters, since the nightly news telecasts have abundant image and text about the coming election and the daily promises made by the leaders. But I guess we’ll see a proper Labor or Coalition ad once there is an official election date. [Since I wrote that, the Nationals produced its first ad yesterday.]
I have a really déjà vu feeling about all this. This is the way it has been for several elections now: vast promises, to every imaginable group that might swing a vote or two, every health group (well, maybe not every one, there must be hundreds), consumers of all products and services, especially electricity, regional this and regional that, and an end to people smugglers, and more recently, climate change. And over the border from me, no more than five km away, there is to be another election, for the Parliament of New South Wales, which does have a known date, 23 March, only three weeks away. Clive Palmer doesn’t seem interested in that one — at least there don’t seem to be television ads for the UAP.
I have been moved, in a sense, from one Canberra seat to another. I have known for twenty years or so, and greatly respect and like, my former MP, Labor’s Gai Brodtmann, who has retired. She was the MP for Canberra, now slightly altered and renamed as ‘Bean’, in honour of C. E. W. Bean, the historian of Australia’s military part in the Great War, and the inspiritor of the Australian War Memorial. No doubt the new member will be known as ‘Mr Bean’, in honour of another famous, though not Australian, male. I do not know any of the candidates for Bean, not that knowing candidates has much importance to me. My interest is in the likely outcome were each one of the major groups to attain power.
I’m not much interested in leaders, either, and never was. We only know how good they are after they have been in power for a while. Bill Shorten hasn’t had any experience as PM, while that of Scott Morrison has been brief. Having said that, he seems to me to be getting better as time goes on; more about him and climate change a little later. Who turns out to be good at top jobs is surrounded in mystery. Being a deputy for a long time helps, but is no guarantee. Harold Holt and Bill McMahon both had experience as deputies, but neither were, in my judgment, much good as PM. Bob Hawke had no experience as deputy but was made for the top job. Of course, he said so himself, so it must have been true. Julia Gillard was better as deputy than as PM, again in my own humble opinion. The top job is lonely, and the burden can be tremendous. A number of Premiers have resigned or retired because of the nervous strain. The cost in terms of family life can be large too.
I have had some experience of top jobs, but not at this level. It is not beer and skittles, and the amount of eating and drinking you have to do can be destructive. Someone I knew once described being at a dinner table with Princess Anne, who managed to get through two course of a formal dinner without eating either of them, but using her knife and fork with aplomb, cutting this and forking that, but never actually getting the food into her mouth. When the dessert came she ate the lot. I heard a senior Democrat in the US describe the eating that went on during a Presidential election campaign as ‘the rubber chicken circuit’. That didn’t make it attractive, and the chicken we ate on that occasion was not remarkable in any way.
What can we expect if Labor wins? Jubilation in much of the media, an increase in the number of public servants in Canberra, and a widespread expectation that the money tree will be even larger than the hopeful think it actually is. So many promises have been made that it will be difficult for the new Labor government to rein in the expectations. The new PM and the new Treasurer will be fighting, at least I hope they will be, to stop the first few Cabinet meetings becoming a total bunfight over whose pet schemes are to be funded first. It will be the first real test of Mr Shorten’s leadership capacity and nerve as PM. It hasn’t been hard for him to hack away at the Coalition — Mr Abbott provided an excellent role model there. It will be much harder for him to control his own troops and demonstrate leadership to the whole nation when he is PM — and Mr Abbott provided, once again, an example of the problem. A tough and able Leader of the opposition, Mr Abbott could not find the spark that turns such a person into the wise and sensible father-of-all. Menzies did, and so did John Howard, to a smaller degree.
The Coalition seem to be moving ahead a little in public opinion, though it still has less support than Labor. Governments will usually look better when the election gets close, because people are used to the people in power, and who knows what might happen if the other side gets in? Labor has some problem issues, in part because it too is a sort of coalition of left and right. If the Coalition manages to scramble back there will be a gnashing of teeth and a beating of breasts in the media, not unlike what happened in the USA when Donald Trump got home. ‘How could this have happened?’ will be the cry of woe. There will be cries of triumph on the conservative side.
What else? There will be a change of portfolios, and the PM will have that exalted feeling of having won an election when every pundit said that wasn’t possible. For quite a while he will be invulnerable within the Coalition. Will anything else change? I appreciated the PM’s performance on the 7.30 Report, where he simply repeated to Leigh Sales that Australia was doing everything it had contracted to do in the climate change area, and the result was working. Why should we do more? We produced about 1.3 per cent of global emissions. I would expect that to be the basis of the government’s global warming position thereafter, at least until there comes some significant shift in temperature either way. Labor has problems in this area, as it does with illegal immigration, and I would expect that Mr Shorten will try to find a form of words, in the fashion of Scott Morrison, that gets him off some more or less painful hooks.
As for Australia, I would expect things to remain much as they are, whichever party group wins. Our domestic politics is much affected by the world’s economy, the rate of growth in China and India, and, for the moment, Brexit. But we are comparatively rich and well-favoured according to most indicators. Long may that continue to be the case!
I will have the pleasure, for the first time, of voting without having to turn up at a polling booth. How the nursing home will organise things I don’t know. But there is always something new to learn.